A Thousand Words on “Prestige” and (to a lesser extent) “Privilege”

(Note: This was written before I deleted my Twitter account)

I.

Prestige.

When I think of that word, I think of inaccessibility, elitism (the notion that a chosen few ever “make it”) and the white marble halls of think tanks, universities, and foundations. Alas, prestige is peddled in all sectors of the white-collar economy- whether it is within the administrative and programming sides of the non-profit sector, the executive suites of the private sector or the upper echelons of government agencies.

Approaching three months after my graduation from the University of Chicago, I am coming to understand what prestige means in its most intangible (not quite immaterial) senses. I now hold a BA from the University of California, Berkeley (History) and an MA from the University of Chicago (Political Science), and, while I do not feel that I have changed as a person, what has changed is how people treat me when they know about the degrees I’ve attained. In my Twitter bio, I list my alma maters. To be honest, I am not sure why I do list them, but it really has changed the way that people approach me on Twitter. At times, I am tempted to delete the names of the schools I attended and tweet the same content and compare the responses I get. Holding degrees from big name schools that are deemed “prestigious” lends me a facile credibility that can be seductive. It’s easy to throw out unsubstantiated claims and then back them up with the degrees one has framed on the wall. It’s too easy, and I resist that ease with every fiber of my being.

I remind myself that the degrees themselves are not proof of my intelligence or worth as a person. They do not vouch for my character, attesting to my kindness or my efficacy as a thoughtful doer and seer. They will never be sufficient in themselves, and they will never serve as a basis for judging me as a whole being. Moreover, they are more of a testament to the access that I have been afforded. I did not get here with my bootstraps (after all, someone else had to make the bootstraps and some organism had to die in the production of said bootstraps- and clutching at one’s bootstraps never made anyone fly.) So, again, my bootstraps did not get me here. No amount of hard work could have gotten me where I am without a support network and a somewhat-privileged-in-some-aspects social position.

By no means does a degree give my musings on the world greater credence. I am only one person. I am still a Black woman with a disability, who comes from a working-middle class home (more social than economic privilege). I am still a second generation college graduate whose grandparents had, at most, an 8th grade education. I still resemble the people most targeted by policing practices. My body is not unlike those of people forcibly sterilized in U.S. prisons- historically and currently. These are realities that I cannot suspend in order to embrace the elusive notion of “prestige.” Nonetheless, it is still very real. My access to these spaces is, in part, a function of tokenism.

In my daily life, I realize just how meaningful access and “prestige” are. These degrees and their concomitant meanings have gained me admittance into white, male-dominated spaces across sectors. That’s not to denigrate the importance of the quality of one’s work, but it is true- the names on the paper do matter, even if you have the qualifications. And those names include one’s given name, the names of your references, and the names of the school(s) you attended. It feels awfully shallow (and equally hollow) to admit this- the fact that my hard work as an ‘individual’ isn’t sufficient in this current labor economy that increasingly banks on prestige while depressing wages and leaning more heavily upon unpaid labor.

In my personal life, I also see how access to prestigious spaces affects my proximity to friends and associates. Many of the people I call “friend” now are people I would never have met if I had not attended an institution of higher learning- let alone one with brand recognition. In all honesty, my networks would likely be far more localized if I had not- even with access to the internet and prolific social media use. In fact, I’d say that my social media use, to some extent, has been about engaging people with similar levels of education. I say that with some shame, because many of my dearest online-to-real life friends are people whose genuine kindness and joy enriched me and challenged me to be a better person- and at that point, degree attainment was not even a factor.

II.

Here, the familiar, pat phrase “check your privilege” comes to mind. At the risk of seeming defensive, I always wonder “what next?” when I am exhorted to “check my privilege.” “Checking my privilege” does not change my somewhat-in-some-respects-privileged social positioning. I am still currently abled (in some respects, already living with a hearing impairment), and I still benefit from class privilege due, in part, to the education I accessed by leveraging class privilege (indeed, privilege reproduces privilege.)  It would seem that, checking my privilege can be a rather circular endeavor. It can couple with feelings of learned helplessness in the face of structural inequality, culminated in the phrase, “what now?”

“Check your privilege” does not challenge the fundamental (spatial/economic/social) ordering of society along the intersecting and overlapping stratifying nodes of class, race, gender, class, ability, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, etc. It just does not. At most, we can hope for a personal transformation that leads to a shift in the ways that one engages others interpersonally, but structural change? No, not that. Never that.

Tangential Questions

Is it sufficient to perpetuate the ways in which privilege reproduces itself through self-selected social networks and call that social justice? Or is the privileged choice to “opt-out” truly a path to social change? What about those for whom circumscribed positions masquerade as “choice?”

 

Suggested Reading:

Sarah Kendzior’s “Why You Should Never Have Taken that Prestigious Internship”

2 Comments

  1. An interesting article. I am doing a quickish internet search for the idea that social justice started as a belief that the industrial revolution was having a negative impact on society. But, is social justice only something academics/religious consider in 2013? Also, there are several books written about the impact of the colonizers’ language and cultural mores on the colonized. I am blanking on the names of these texts. Keep going!

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